Josue Romero hadn't seen a federal immigration agent since he'd sat in the back of an U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement van last week, forced on a whirlwind road trip that began as the first step to deportation and ended, somehow, back in his father's arms in San Antonio.
Now, just over a week since a minor pot possession charge sent him tumbling into ICE's custody, Romero met with an ICE agent for a mandatory "check-in" — and to hopefully get some answers. Specifically, why Romero, a 19-year-old recipient of Obama's deferred action program (or DACA), had been detained in the first place.
But he left the North Side ICE office with very little new information and a request to return on June 1 — and to alert ICE if he plans on leaving the state. To Jonathan Ryan, Romero's lawyer and head of local immigrant defense organization RAICES, it appeared Romero was being treated like an immigrant without the protections granted by DACA.
"Josue is being tracked by ICE for no reason," said Ryan, who joined Romero to speak with reporters Friday afternoon before entering the office. "As a DACA student, he should have never been prioritized by ICE. This is unacceptable."
Under the Obama Administration, DACA students were only at serious risk of deportation if they had "been convicted of a felony offense, a significant misdemeanor offense, or multiple misdemeanor offenses." And while President Donald Trump released an executive order vowing to broaden the types of crimes undocumented immigrants could be deported for, Trump has said it won't affect DACA recipients. Romero's case seems to show otherwise.
Standing in the sun outside ICE's field office, Romero spoke calmly about his tumultuous week and unknown future.
"I'm a little more comfortable after today's meeting, but there is a lot of work to do going forward," he said. "Right now, I'm trying to not fall behind on my studies. Because the biggest reason I'm here, the biggest reason my dad fought to get me here in the first place is that I want to have a life I couldn't have in Honduras. And that's what I have in this community."
Romero moved to San Antonio when he was 3 years old, escaping the growing presence of gang violence in Honduras. Now, he's a second year study at the Southwest School of Art — and has touched the lives of many along the way. School staffers came out Friday to support Romero.
"Josue has been a vital member of our community," said Andrea Zieger, a student affairs coordinator with SSA. "Whenever we're asking for students to help out on campus, he's the first to get involved. We want to see him continue to grow as an artist."
On February 14, Romero was charged with a small-time marijuana possession and booked in Bexar County's jail system. Two days later, he was suddenly handed over to ICE agents, tossed in a van, and on the way to the prison-like Pearsall detention center. (Bexar County Sheriff's office has yet to return multiple phone calls from the Current
to explain what happened between his arrest and ICE's involvement).
But halfway to Pearsall, the agents got a call. Without explanation, the van turned back to San Antonio and dropped Romero off in the RAICES parking lot. Romero credits this eleventh-hour decision with a letter penned by Rep. Lloyd Doggett
to ICE Assistant Director Sean Hackbarth, demanding Romero's immediate release.
But he knows the fight for his release began on the ground.
"I believe, though he is a great congressman, it was the power of the people coming together, speaking out on my behalf that brought me home," he said. Romero plans on meeting with Doggett next week to thank him in person.
Romero hopes his case will bring hope to others "living in the shadows" in a country he is still grateful to call home.
"We are all just humans, it's ridiculous that we are being separated and incarcerated and deported just because we were born somewhere else and we wanted to fight for our future," he said. "It's not just a future for us, it's a future for the United States."
Despite ICE giving Romero little to work with at Friday's brief, 10-minute-long meeting, Ryan appeared even more driven to investigate ICE's motives. Which starts with tasking Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar, who's stayed silent on Romero's case, to prioritize his community before the feds.
"This is our county surrendering authority to the federal government, surrendering our children to return to violent countries," Ryan said. "We will not let that stand."